[Editor’s note: We are very pleased to welcome Kevin Bell to Jihadica. Kevin has lived in Afghanistan and Tajikistan for a number of years and recently wrote a master’s thesis on Yunis Khalis for Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department. He’s hunting for a job in Afghanistan–probably not for long given his proficiency in Pashto. You can follow him on Twitter @allegorycave]
Yunis Khalis is best known for his role as the leader of the Hizb-e Islami (Khalis) mujahidin political party, and as a host to Osama bin Laden in 1996 in Jalalabad. However, even a cursory review of the various Khalis biographies written in Pashto reveals that there was far more to his life, interests, and influence on Afghan politics than might be indicated by a discussion limited to his role as a jihadi leader.
I extensively discuss many of these new perspectives about Khalis in my forthcoming report from the Combating Terrorism Center, but some of the most interesting episodes from the biographical literature are unfortunately not included in that study. The most fascinating and unexpected of these is Din Muhammad’s account of Yunis Khalis’s “medical practice” as a homeopathic healer.
Din Muhammad begins by pointing out that Yunis Khalis’s curriculum as a madrasa student in pre-partition India included exposure to Greek medical texts, but Khalis’s real introduction to the theory and practice of medicine began after he went into exile in Pakistan in 1974. Shortly after Khalis arrived in Pakistan he spent some time living in the home of Mawlawi Salim in Kurram Agency. Mawlawi Salim was already an established medical practitioner who wrote books about homeopathic healing in Urdu from his home. Khalis spent some time perusing these and asking Salim questions about the more challenging parts of the text before he traveled to Peshawar where the majority of the mujahidin leadership then resided. By this time Khalis had acquired enough knowledge to begin his own research and he began to practice homeopathy independently after buying some books and medicines from the bazaar in Peshawar.
In order to substantiate his account of Khalis’s knowledge of medicine, Din Muhammad eagerly recounts two incidents where he witnessed the effectiveness of Yunis Khalis as a healer. Although we immediately notice that the illnesses/wounds that Khalis heals in these two anecdotes are neither dramatic nor life threatening, Din Muhammad’s point is not that Khalis was a miracle worker. Once he establishes that Khalis actually understood something about medicine, Din Muhammad uses this to make a larger point about Khalis’s character: he was generous with his time, skills, and treasure, and he did not charge the poor for his services. This is a theme which Din Muhammad picks up elsewhere, such as in his account of the construction of Khalis’s new neighborhood of Najm al-Jihad south of Jalalabad for widows, orphans, and disabled mujahidin after the end of the Soviet Afghan War.
We are right to question the possible bias of authors like Din Muhammad who have such a clear personal connection to their subject matter. However, it is easy enough to argue that the state of our knowledge of Yunis Khalis is so poor that even accounts of him that are semi-hagiographical in nature deserve real attention. He is a key figure in the history of both the development of the Haqqani Network and the growth of the Eastern Shura (aka Jalalabad Shura) in the mid 1990s.
But ultimately, that has nothing to do with why I enjoyed reading this particular subsection of Din Muhammad’s biography. This account of Khalis as a homeopath reminds us that there are systems of knowledge and ways of approaching learning in the Afghan frontier that are both vital and important to local communities, and almost totally unanalyzed in the West. Considering that I have only scratched the surface of the extant primary source material about Yunis Khalis and other major Afghan mujahidin leaders, I expect that further study will reveal even more surprising and interesting addenda to our understanding of the history of Afghan Islamism.
That’s a fascinating opening salvo, Kevin.
When you say “homeopathic” are you referring to the remedies developed by Hahnemann in particular, or to herbalism, folk remedies etc in general – as opposed to western allopathic medicine? I can even imagine there might be some ayurvedic influence, given Khalis’s pre-partition early education, and wonder how segregated “western” (allpathic), “hindu” (ayurvedic) and “Muslim” (herbal / magical) medicines might be in daily practice. What do Mawlawi Salim’s books take for the basis of their approach?
QUOTE: Din Muhammad’s point is not that Khalis was a miracle worker. Once he establishes that Khalis actually understood something about medicine, Din Muhammad uses this to make a larger point about Khalis’s character: he was generous with his time, skills, and treasure, and he did not charge the poor for his services. :UNQUOTE
That’s particularly telling, in terms of the Islamic emphasis on what Catholics would call “works of corporeal mercy” – something Maqdisi seems to emphasize too.
Indeed, your point that “there are systems of knowledge and ways of approaching learning in the Afghan frontier that are both vital and important to local communities, and almost totally unanalyzed in the West” would appear to me to have resonance across a far wider field than Afghanistan alone, though I understand that’s your own focus.
Peter Chilton’s piece on the Dogon in FP today, for instance, doesn’t even mention the extensive anthropological interest in Dogon culture and diversity, as represented in authors ranging from the programmatic but fascinating Marcel Griaule via the criticisms of Mary Douglas to the recent overview by Huib Blom.
Your “systems of knowledge and ways of approaching learning” are “almost totally unanalyzed in the West” because we’re trained to think vertically, keeping within disciplinary boundaries, rather than horizontally, moving across them…
Cross-disciplinary awareness, it seems to me, present special problems (cf dispute over Griaule’s work on Dogon cosmology), but surely we need to be addressing rather than ignoring them.
Charles, great question. Unfortunately this little anecdote is very short and doesn’t give much detail. Din Muhammad transliterates the word “homeopathy” into the Arabic script and simply uses it as one might use the word in English. This is actually fairly common practice in Pashto, so there’s nothing particularly strange about this word being borrowed. As for Mawlawi Salim, if I remember correctly, Salim never shows up again in the biography, so this is all very mysterious. For what it’s worth, part of Khalis’s healing methods seem to have involved the use of pills. Din Muhammad never really says exactly what these are, or whether Khalis made them himself, so it’s not clear what conclusions we can draw. Frankly, I put this here mostly because a) there is very little discussion of the medical practices of the mujahidin in Afghanistan in general and b) the idea that Khalis might have had a reputation as a healer is totally new in the West as far as I can tell…